Today I have the wonderful opportunity to post a Short Story, The Painting in the Room by Richard Writhen. I hope everyone enjoys! I appreciate being able to post this. Thank You Richard for the opportunity to post this amazing story!
A little while back I posted a Sword and Sorcery Short Story (The Far Side of Villainy By J. Manfred Weichsel ), which Led to me being able to share this story. Richard is a friend of the blog and saw that post. He approached me about a Weird Fiction Short Story he was working on. So I jumped at the chance to post this Fantastic story! I love me some Weird Fiction and this story is a perfect little tale of weird, occult, and macabre.
Would you like to be a part of my guest blog or short story series? Please contact me! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Now without further adieu here is Richard’s awesome short story.
The Painting in the Room
by Richard Writhen
Situated behind a fastidiously manicured lawn, at the end of a paved drive, surrounded on both sides by banks of expertly tended petunias and other flowers, lay one of the oldest art galleries in the entire state of Nateley. One morning, at the rear of its second story, Dr. Marion James walked out of his office past a large, frosted glass door that was held open by a wooden jamb and onto the second floor veranda. It was a beautiful spring day outside, and still in that time between summer and autumn; the sun dappled the leaves on the trees, and it was still very warm, pleasantly so. The massive stone balcony on which he stood overlooked The Galleria’s back yard, which extended north for several acres in total area; it featured a verdant green lawn, a paved courtyard with a towering statue in its center, and several thick, chest-high vases full of multi-colored flowers at each one of four corners. He stopped just short of the guardrail and clumsily fished a small object out of the right front pocket of his worn suit jacket; it was the remaining three-quarters of a relatively inexpensive cigar. And then, while he knew full well that the institution’s stodgy board of directors strongly disapproved of any smoking on the grounds, he casually flipped open his small lighter regardless and lit it, then puffed away until the familiar odor of the tobacco’s smoke surrounded him like a favorite blanket.
Hey, what they don’t know can’t hurt ‘em, he thought to himself. And don’t forget your daily appointments this time, you’ve got that two second-clock interview … then later, there’s that dinner with Nancy over at O’Malley’s at around six. He found his mouth beginning to water a bit, as there were few things in life that a sandwich the size of a small pig couldn’t fix. He smoked contentedly for a minute or two, then rubbed the resultant stub out on the outside of the balustrade so the excess tobacco would fall harmlessly onto the first floor veranda. He walked over to his desk, which was almost completely covered with several stacks of musty journals; the room had shelving on all four walls, even abutting the door-frame. There were books and periodicals of all kinds, scratched FHS tapes, and even broken-down old Meta-Max units, all of it stacked eight to ten items high and then placed anywhere. The phone rang and when he answered, he found it was Diane calling from the downstairs office. “Your appointment is here. Shall I send him up?”
“Yes, please do. Thank you.”
By the time the applicant had reached the top of the main stairwell, Dr. James could hear the footfalls on the hardwood floor, so he called him through the doorway. “Right in here, please.” The young man walked into the office; he was quite tall, with slicked-back hair, and wearing a well-fitted dark blue suit with a matching sixty-credit tie. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties; his face was prematurely lined around the eyes but rather bland, as if it were unused to strong emotion of any kind. “I’m going to need more folder space for all of these tax forms soon, I’m afraid.” The young man gave him a non-committal smile and then stretched out his right hand for a shake; in truth, Dr. James loathed shaking hands … but the applicant had no way of knowing that, so he reluctantly complied.
“Hi, I’m Michael Connor,” the applicant began. “I’m here about the personal assistant to the curator position.” Dr. James crossed to a cabinet set against the office’s west wall, poured himself a drink and turned. “Whiskey?”
“No, thanks.” Connor smiled at the older man politely. Dr. James gave a small shrug, picked up his glass and sat down in a corporate rolling chair on the far side of his huge black pine desk, a shadow briefly passing over his features, and said “Please, sit.” The newcomer followed suit, so he continued. “And, no … Not quite. I am technically the director of this galleria. There is no curator currently on the payroll. I’m afraid the ad itself was a bit vague as to the exact role, and it’s just an issue of semantics, but if the Board were to hear you call me a curator, they would be … dismayed. That term is currently out of vogue, you see.”
“I do, sir.” Connor nodded. Dr. James paused for a moment, studying him pensively before continuing. “Good. So, we spoke briefly on the phone about your qualifications. Refresh my memory, if you would.” Connor swallowed carefully and then began to speak in a very even, controlled tone. “Sure. Well, I began taking art classes while I was still upstate, attending advanced placement at Tomas Leeds High School, and then I attended Ae Theatro Desartes College for seven years here in Nehansett. I received my Bursar’s Degree in Art History there in 2026, then took a short break for two years to pursue my own work, and I am currently enrolled in their Advanced Studies program, the first semester of which I will begin this coming fall.” They went back and forth with inquiries and answers like that for a good twenty minutes; Dr. James first steepled his big hands under his chin then rested them on the green desk pad, a profusion of age lines furrowing his brow under the salt and pepper of his scalp.
“That’s very impressive. Now, you say your ‘own work’. And that is?” Connor crossed his legs, left ankle to right knee. “Well, I paint, sir. Oils and watercolors. That’s actually a large part of the reason why I am applying for this position, actually. I was told that you have a nearly priceless collection.” Dr. James smiled at him for the first time, and Connor visibly relaxed. “We do, young man. Immeasurably so. That’s why you had to pass through those fine security gentlemen downstairs. You seem to be a very good fit for the position, Mr. Connor …”
Connor interrupted him gently. “Michael, please.”
“Yes, Michael. That’s something that I don’t say to many of our applicants. I’ll tell you what, though. Enough ancient history, as it were. Are you ready for a tour of the place?” Connor smiled at the director and answered without hesitation. “Absolutely.”
“Great. Let’s get on with it, then.” Several minutes later, they were on the first floor. Dr. James flipped a light switch to the outside left of one of the doorways on, then grasped the knob and opened it for the younger man. “This particular room is called the Baroque Room. It’s for eighteenth and nineteenth century work only.” Connor was totally enrapt; he walked a few paces into the room and began to stroll along the west wall, where the first of the paintings was well-mounted and artfully lit. “Work from some of the best artists of the period …” He murmured at them in an appraising manner, then continued down the row until he almost ran into Dr. James, who had stopped at about the midway point for some reason. Dr. James covered one of the placards with a big hand, then queried the younger man. “This one is quite sinister. Surely you know the artist and year?”
Connor stared at the painting, as if memorizing its every stroke. “Of course, sir. This piece is quite unique, and leaves little room for doubt … though I’ve only seen scans of it online. It’s the work of Salague Maletto, probably the most famous of the Optrani Academy artists. This is his work, A Study Of Birds Taking Flight, which was completed in 1741. Few modern artists can even comprehend, let alone imitate this use of color.” Dr. James grinned at him smugly, then turned about to look up at the piece as well. “Indeed. It’s as if the subjects might begin breathing at any moment, or even fly right off the canvas. Maletto captured life; it was probably modeled on moving targets, as it is said that Maletto had a nearly perfect, photographic memory. Do you know much about the school?”
Connor’s smile widened, became bright. “I try to stay current with all the new finds and whatnot, but with discoveries being made every day, there’s only so much one can do … but yes, I have read extensively about the rumors.” By the time he had finished speaking, the shadow from earlier had returned; it darkened the director’s features like a cloud. “Ah, yes. Well now, that’s all they are; rumors. There’s not really any conclusive evidence that the Optrani Artist Collective was involved with the occult. It’s all conjecture, you see … the fact of the matter is that, once one achieves a certain level of talent, people are suddenly willing to believe any negative story that explain why that is.” He turned to the right rather dismissively. “Now, on to the Work Room. I have something … special. I don’t show this to all applicants, but … let’s just say that you show more promise than most.”
The Work Room was a large studio with a polished hardwood floor and three bay windows, looking out onto the forested area almost due west of the building. On a small fiberglass dais in its center was a single easel covered in a sheet that had been spattered with stray paint droplets of many colors. As he approached it, Dr. James whisked the covering off, revealing the canvas’ surface. Barely even worked, it had been criss-crossed with apparently random strokes in several shades of blue; and then, in the very bottom left corner, there was nothing more than …
“A hand.” Connor frowned slightly, his eyebrows drawing in towards his aquiline nose, but Dr. James just chuckled at his reaction. “It’s more than just a ‘hand’ … much more; this piece is a Maletto, young man. You see, when they finally went to demolish the home he had lived in for most of his life in 1775, the workmen accidentally found a hidden chamber in the basement. But the really strange part about it was that this unfinished piece was the only thing that they found in it. It was presumably intended to be a self-portrait … but he never completed it.” Connor tore his gaze away from the director’s and looked at it again. “Really …” As they walked out, taking a left at a large stained-glass window and walking on down the west corridor towards the front foyer, Dr. James said, “You have the position, Mr. Connor. When’s the soonest you can take residency?”
After that, several months flew by. Connor was like a god-send to Dr. James, exceeding his every expectation, to the extent of even finishing his thoughts at times. The assistant was more well-versed in modern art and art history than the director could ever have imagined. Many endeavors that the Fisk Galleria had been forced to put down or abandon over the previous ten years were picked up again, reinstated and their mission statements rewritten. Connor and his girlfriend, Mandy Thompson, moved into a small apartment on the western wing of the second floor, which was coincidentally right above the Work Room. One night, Mandy came to the doorway to the room that Connor was using as a studio while he worked, with nothing but a sheet wrapped around her naked body. “It’s three. Are you coming to bed or not. I’m only supportive to a fault, you know? Are you just going to stir that paint all night or are you going to do something with it?” She was using her most sardonic tone; he knew it well. He smiled and said, “I know. Just … give me a few minutes more. I’m working a problem area here, this has to get done tonight.” Mandy shook out her long brown hair, wrinkled up her little pixie nose and snorted at him like a pig; Michael just rolled his eyes. “Listen, I have to find the specific pastel shades necessary, otherwise the whole piece won’t work.”
“Listen … about what you’re doing …” Mandy let the statement trail off into a question.
“Do you really think it’s best to mess with the work of a master?”
Connor carefully trained his eyes back onto the canvas that he had been working on. “I don’t know what you mean, hun.”
“You know what I mean. They never found the man’s body … he was involved with the occult. Do you think it is best to … alter an existing work?”
“There’s no problem, dear. No problem at all. Go back to bed.” He raised his brush to the canvas, but then let it drop back down to his side; as he did, he caught a tertiary view of himself in the mirror on the far wall; his white work tee shirt was spattered with spots of paint of every size. “Not gonna wait up, cowboy.” She gave him her tightest-lipped smile, which he returned warmly. “That’s fine, hon. We can catch up tomorrow, okay?”
“Is that what you think? We’ll see.” She turned around and returned to their bedroom down the hall; once she had gone, Connor put down his palette and brush on the covered chest that he used in lieu for a desk. He walked over to his futon, which was under one of the diagonal west windows, and grabbed his white chamois shirt off of it and threw it on; then he put on his thong slippers and picked up his keys from a bowl near the front door of the unit and he was off and headed for the main staircase. Not once in the several months that he had been employed by the Galleria had he returned to the Work Room, and yet not a day had passed when he had not spared several idle moments to wondering at the strange, unfinished work that he had seen; and now, he had to see it again.
When he had retrieved his keyring and opened the door, the piece was in exactly the same place as it had been when Dr. James had shown it to him during his initial interview. Almost involuntarily, he found himself walking over to the cabinets along the north wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the fingers depicted on the canvas seem to move. But when he walked back over to it and focused his gaze on it in study, nothing was changed. It’s just a figment of my imagination … it’s also been staying up too late, apparently. He returned to the cabinets and began taking out supplies; a palette, paints, a jar with some cleaning solution, and a brush. Then, he went over and unmasked the piece just as Dr. James had; it was still there, still unfinished, still somehow … mocking him.
He brought the brush back up to the canvas, to resume painting it where Maletto had somehow left off. But while he did, its contents began to swirl and reform on their own. He stopped, retracted the brush and stood back from the canvas, stunned. What the? He made as if to put the brush down on a side table without rinsing it, but instead he raised it again and began to paint; one slow, painful stroke at a time. The paint on the canvas began to augment, then coast of its own volition, as if still wet after hundreds of years; then, an image began to emerge therein, composed all in vibrant shades of red and blue and orange.
After several moments, it had become a badly rendered portrait of Salague Malleto himself, standing in a chamber made of hewn stone, presumably also raising his brush to a canvas; but it was from the canvas’ point of view, so it appeared to mimic Connor’s own physical position as if a mirror. And without warning, their positions were reversed; rather than the basement being behind Maletto, Michael was now staring at a portrait of him standing in the Work Room. Both the palette and brush dropped from his hands as his arms fell limp to his sides; but the image of Maletto calmly placed his own down on the side table and then gave him an impish smile.
Connor slowly took a long look around himself; he was apparently no longer in the Work Room; no longer in the Fisk Galleria for that matter. He was in a basement chamber which had a hard-pack dirt floor and mortared stone walls; yet one of them was completely missing. He walked up to the gap thus produced, and reached out his hand only to discover an invisible barrier. This is impossible. I’m literally inside that damned painting, he thought to himself, as the color drained from his face; then, he fell backwards onto his posterior in the dust. Several days later, the entire room tumbled about as the piece was moved to the Baroque Room; he became bruised, and bloodied, and reduced to brooding in the chamber’s dimness.
After a time it stabilized again; Dr. James and even several members of the Board of Directors came to view it. It seemed as if they stared directly at him, before commenting to each other animatedly. At first, he tried to call out to them, bashing his forearms against the barrier with all his might; then, he began yelling … and finally, screaming. There was no response whatsoever; they couldn’t hear him at all. As he turned away, tears blurring his vision, he saw a detail that he had initially missed; fine lines in the far wall. A doorway! Connor ran over to it as fast as he was able; suddenly optimistic, he tried to work his right index finger into the gap … but it was tightly mortared shut.
Oh gods … it’s been sealed from the other side.
Originally from Rhode Island, Richard Writhen also lived in NYC for about ten years. He has been e-published on several notable sites such as Grimdarkmagazine.com, Ragnarokpub.com and Techzwn.com and is the author of three novellas and several short stories. He writes Gothdark, Grimdark, GDSF and Psychological Horror, and will eventually be exploring the Weird West.
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Students Wayloch Urser, Daralya Tialu and Renita Blane are about to graduate from General School, but accidentally spy on the supernatural activities of blood witch Gwyndolen Gardner. Stalked by a figure in the woods, they conspire to alert the authorities to the fact that there are illegal vampires living in their city.
Antisocial tailor Lucylis Sontire’s beloved pet is run over in the street one day by a brutish mine-lord. As he grieves, a strange sorcerer befriends him and they go on a romp through the neighborhood in a quest to create dark magical creatures, but are constantly stymied by the baker’s cat.